The movie ‘Gunjan Saxena- the Kargil Girl” has raised a storm in every household – including in those who have had nothing to do with the Armed Forces. There are umpteen rebuttals on social media as regard the ‘truth and wrongs’ in the movie, leaving the movie viewers confused – the most talked about being the attitude of the seniors towards a woman officer. While there are many who saw it as it happened, can we have a first hand view from someone who has witnessed these events unfold from close quarters? Here, I would like to bring to you my perspective, as a male IAF officer, on the realities of women officers in the Indian Air Force.
The movie seeks to portray the supervisors, appointments, seniors and colleagues in the IAF in poor light – which is far from the truth. That is neither fair to an esteemed organisation- her ‘alma mater’, nor to the hundreds of women officers who hold the IAF in high esteem. I am unsure about the contribution of Flt Lt Gunjan (retd) in this misgiving and the poor portrayal of the IAF. Instead, I would squarely blame the movie makers who have succeeded in their mission of selling the movie (and making their buck) at the cost of ill repute to the IAF and an impending controversy surrounding the officer herself.
I have a fair perspective of the women officers from the the 90’s onwards, two of which assume significance – firstly, in their capacity as my colleagues during those formative years of women in IAF and thereafter as a fine set of women officers who served under my command recently.
I am a male officer, commissioned into IAF in 1993, a little before the year when women officers joined the Air Force. In fact, I was posted in the Air Force Base in Tezpur (Assam) in 1995 as a young Flight Lieutenant, where my neighbours on both sides (in the bachelor block) were two women officers. One of them was from the initial batch of IAF Ground Duty officers and the other was from the pioneering course comprising the first few Logistic officers.
Official interaction apart, staying and socialising as bachelors in the same living block with them (fondly called “Nukkad”), gave me a deep insight into their day to day experiences in the work place and their perspective of their superiors and colleagues. We were lucky to have greater undestanding of their social traits, their apprehension and fears and their triumph & tribulation as the torch bearers of the ‘Women in Blue’. While we were not related in any way apart from being posted at the airbase at the same time, we knew them in and out as if a family member! I am therefore confident that I carry a fair, 360 degree perspective of their experience with the organisation.
While Flt Lt. Gunjan Saxena’s movie has correctly brought out the fudamental challenges that women officers faced in that era, I have strong objection to the problem solving methods that have been portrayed in the movie which are contrary to the truth. In reality, every administrative limitation was overcome with practical solutions that any logical person could think of. As far as operational aspects are concerned, the organisation had no precedence to bank on – evidently, the organisation, the women officers as well as their male colleagues were infact evolving the doctrine together.
Drawing the parallells between this and another scenario- the induction of women officers into the IAF operational bases had close resemblance to a “newly wed bahu” joining a big joint family. That’s the closest I can take you to understanding the situation of 90s that we are talking about. The lady officers were in absolute focus- socially, professionally and otherwise as is the case with the ‘bahu’. In the process of mutual adjustment in initial years, if at all there was a sense of discomfort, it was nothing but a part of day to day teaching intended to bringing out the best in you. That is part of military grooming as much as it is part of the grooming of the “new entrant bahu”.
While we go through a lot of testing times at the workplace on day to day basis, the ultimate test of what superiors think of any officer lies in what they write in the officer’s Annual Confidential Report (ACR). Afterall, that’s the only way a boss can make a difference from the organisational perspective. The ACR can make or break the professional career of those placed under you. If it was for deleterious feelings against them, no woman officer would have risen to become Group Captain or operations head of a combat unit (Flight Commander) or for that matter, a Commanding Officer in the IAF. If the depiction in the movie was to be a practice in the IAF those days, we wouldn’t have had thousands of Women officers joining the Armed Forces over the last 26 years!
Talking about the Annual Confidential Report, I have written a few for the women officers who served under me. Contrary to the projection in the movie, I have had high opinions about women officers – I am sure that my understanding is shared by most seniors. To quote one fine example, while I was commanding a unit, I had an officer under me who was pregnant. Despite the physiological and practical challenges of pregnancy, she did not take cover for any leniency. Instead, her exceptional commitment to the workplace and her throughput amazed me. I never expressed it to her for a year, until I wrote her ACR. Her sacrifices of personal comfort to meet the organisation’s objectives was duly recognised as her strength and mentioned by me in her Annual Confidential Report.. A quick reading of my remarks on her (photo of the page inset) will rest all speculations that the movie has created about how the seniors think and treat lady officers.
As may be evident, the relevant page from the actual ACR is self explanatory and the comments evidently commend her perseverence and work ethic. For those who choose to skip reading the above interesting document, suffices to know that I had more words of praises than what fits into the provided space in the ACR!! (On an informal note, I never knew that the copy of one of such officer’s ACR that I wrote would come handy to make a point. However, since the said lady officer is still serving in the IAF, I have blanked out the identity of the officer for confidentiality sake).
Finally, for argument sake if we assume that Flt Lt Gunjan’s bosses were not supportive in teaching her flying (as was claimed in the movie), how did she fly in the face of an enemy and achieve success in the heroic rescue that the movie then went on to portray? In conclusion, this is definitely not a biopic of an IAF pilot. At least, I would like to belieive that the way the movie has depicted her is not the way she may have wanted it portrayed.
I would rather trust my experience to say that the IAF follows the finest doctrines of military leadership and camaraderie for both men or women, without exception.
About the Author
The author, Wing Commander K Dinesh was commissioned into the Aeronautical Engineering branch of IAF on 29 Nov 1993 as a Flying Officer. He retired in July 2014 as a Wing Commander after serving IAF for 21 years. During his stay with IAF he held important assignments. He was part of the Kargil conflict in 1999. Wg Cdr Dinesh can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org